By Ryan Lazo
BROOKLYN, NY — When one thinks of the Atlantic 10 Conference, they automatically think of Xavier University, a perennial power on the national scene.
However, this season has been one of widespread change, a rare rebuilding effort after Xavier lost three of their best players last season to both graduation and transfer.
Tu Holloway, Mark Lyons and Kenny Frease averaged a combined 60 percent of the Musketeers’ scoring output from last season. To make matters worse, Lyons and Xavier decided to part ways as the senior transferred to Arizona and has led them to a 24-6, being named to All-Pac 12 Team.
Meanwhile, Xavier has experienced many bumps and bruises along the way this season. They have earned big-time triumphs with victories over Saint Louis and Memphis, both ranked teams, but also head-scratching losses to Wake Forest, Richmond and Charlotte.
It’s those dumbfounding losses that have Xavier playing in the opening round of the A-10 Tournament for just the third time in the past 13 years. A stretch in which they earned a first-round bye in 10 of those years.
Yes, the team that has reached seven straight NCAA Tournaments, four of the past five Sweet 16s, one of only four teams to do so, has struggled to live up to its glorious past. But Chris Mack has done arguably his best coaching job during his fourth year at the helm of the Musketeers.
Dealing with turbulent ups and downs, Mack’s steady hands has helped Xavier navigate the tough waters of the deadly Atlantic 10, finishing with a 17-13 record, including a 9-7 mark in conference play.
What makes that even more impressive is that Dee Davis, expected to pick up much of the scoring load with Lyons’ departure, did not play a few games due to injury and when he did take the court, he underperformed.
Davis averaged just 8.4 points per game, shooting at just a mild 39 percent from the field.
But again, Xavier adapted.
With Davis struggling, Mack turned toward the bench and looked at a talented freshman named Semaj Christon. Christon was not expected to gain much playing time this season, but with the losses mounting and scoring at a premium, Mack inserted the youngster into the lineup.
It paid immediate dividends.
Christon led the team in scoring at 15.4 points per game, dished out 4.6 assists per contest and grabbed nearly three rebounds a game. The Cincinnati native also piled up conference awards, winning six Atlantic 10 Conference Rookie of the Week awards.
It was talent that Mack knew would be there when he committed to Xavier.
“Semaj is an excellent player-maker with elite athleticism,” Mack said at the time. “Semaj was a late-bloomer and we are happy to welcome another hometown product.”
And it’s because of Christon, coupled with Xavier’s No. 1 ranked field goal percentage defense, that the Musketeer’s enter the A-10 Tournament with a seed as high as No. 7.
It’s a position Xavier has not been accustomed to over the course of the past decade.
Astonishingly, Xavier has earned at least a share of five of the past six A-10 Regular Season Championships. In addition, Xavier has shared or won nine Atlantic 10 Regular Season Championships since joining the league in 1995.
But instead, Xavier now has to aim high and attempt to win the A-10 Tournament for a guaranteed position in the NCAA Tournament for the eighth consecutive year.
The Musketeers first opponent is preseason A-10 Conference favorites, Saint Joseph’s who had a dismal season, underperforming in every category. Hailed as Phil Martelli‘s most talented team since his NCAA squad included Jameer Nelson, the team has succumbed to the pressure.
And in a tournament that lasts four days to crown a champion, a team like Xavier can not be overlooked.
Offense is fickle. It comes and goes as it pleases, but defense is about effort and that can be controlled.
And Mack has built his Musketeers team on the strength of defense.
His pack-line defensive strategy has Xavier ranked first in the A-10 field goal percentage, second in scoring defense and third in 3-point defense. In addition, Xavier has held 13 opponents under 40 percent shooting this season.
With a stingy defense, an aura of invincibility from past success and a neophyte looking to put his name in Musketeers lore, this Xavier team can surprise in Brooklyn.
Ryan Lazo can be reached on Twitter @RMLazo13